The Trinity: Not from the Bible Alone

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 8.52.47 AMIn spite of the claim of many, the doctrine of the Trinity — so Kevin Giles, in The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity — cannot be derived simply from the Bible, and this he contends is why the complementarian theologians who formed their own Trinity theology got into troubles.

It’s the issue of how one does theology.

When Christian Smith wrote The Bible Made Impossible it seemed to me then, and even more now, that he could have focused more on Grudem as the paradigmatic example of how so many do theology today. What Smith didn’t do is done more by Giles, and here’s what he says:

He says “it is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the Bible teach us today about any given topic’ … Because, for Grudem, the Bible gives the content of the great doctrines, he excludes on principle the idea that doctrines develop and take shape in history, and that there can be objective advances on what is said explicitly in Scripture in the “doing” of theology. … Grudem says he works with just two presuppositions: “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only absolute standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and he is who the Bible says he is: the creator of heaven and earth and all things in them.”

The possibility that other presuppositions may impinge on his interpretation and systematizing of Scripture and on his theological conclusions is not seen as a possibility. The implication is that if you affirm that the Bible is inerrant you will be able to give inerrant accounts of any doctrine by appeal to the Bible alone. Our fallen nature will be saved from itself. 68

Giles presses his point hard:

It is this understanding of theology that has undone complementarian theology. Following this methodology, complementarian theologians led the evangelical world into heresy on the foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, the Trinity. It is heart-warming for evangelicals to be told that what is being taught comes directly from the Bible and to denigrate creeds and confessions and ignore the contribution of the theologians, but in the end it is disastrous. It results in evangelicals becoming a sect of Christianity with their own distinctive doctrines.

An acerbic evaluation of the claim that “my theology comes directly from Scripture” is given by the great Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper. He calls such assertions “unscientific,” “grotesque,” and “utterly objectionable.’ 69

Giles knows that theology as we know it and do believe it, that is the Trinity, cannot be found simply by sticking to the Bible. He knows we do theology by Scripture, by tradition, and by reason. So what is it?

Let me make crystal clear what I am arguing. I am putting the case that theology, specifically evangelical theology, is always more than just systematizing what is explicitly said in Scripture. Rather, it develops in history, almost always in conflict and debate, and almost always what in Scripture answers the question before the church at any particular time is at first unclear and disputed. Coming to a common mind as to what in Scripture answers the question before the church usually involves giving more weight to some comments in Scripture than others and often demands making inferences or deductions, on the basis of what is said in Scripture because the Scriptures do not directly address the matter in dispute. In this communal exercise focused on the Scriptures, what the ancient church decided these Scriptures are saying is invaluable to us, and must not be ignored if codified in creeds and confessions. In this complex, interactive, and communal enterprise, the theologians with the best minds make the biggest and most important contribution. I am also arguing that in this historical and organic process objective advances are made in theological articulation that go beyond anything explicitly said in Scripture, and yet the Christian community comes to agree that what is concluded captures the trajectory that Scripture itself implies. 79-80

The mistake of complementarian hypotheses about the Trinity made was to ignore deep study of the church’s tradition on the Trinity.

The Rise of the Complementarian Hypothesis of the Trinity

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 8.52.47 AMSome who embraced the eternal subordination of the Son were political about it: they let others (Grudem, Ware, Burke, Strachan) do the talking, they did the supporting by non-criticism and providing the platform. But because they never wrote about it are not now accountable, but they nonetheless were part of the complementarian (mis)hypothesis of the Trinity.

This is how that theory arose, and I am working in this series with Kevin Giles, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity.

It began with George Knight III:

All new directions in theology are articulated first in a point of time, usually by one person, in most cases a man. The very first person in history to speak of “the role subordination” of women, and of “the eternal role subordination of the Son of God,” in both cases meaning in plain English their subordination in authority and nothing else, was George Knight III in his highly influential 1977 book, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women. In this book, he rejected the historic way of speaking of men as “superior,” women “inferior” that had reigned until the middle part of the twentieth century, arguing instead that men and women are “equal,” yet “role differentiated.” These differing “roles,” he said, were given in creation before the fall. As such, they give the God-given ideal and are transcultural and transtemporal. This wording sounded acceptable to the modern ear: who could deny that men and women are different in significant ways and tend to have different roles—women bear and nurture children, do most of the house-work; men do the gardening, cook at BarB-Qs, at least in Australia, and watch sport on TV? (9)

Much of it rooted in 1 Cor 11:3. (See now Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth.) Giles continues by pointing the significance of Knight’s book:

This one man produced a way of speaking of the male-female relationship that preserved what he called the “traditional” understanding of male “headship” that sounded acceptable to modern ears and in doing so reworded and redefined the doctrine of the Trinity in the terms he had invented to speak of what he believed was the primary difference between the
 sexes (10).

Knight’s view was not according to the Athanasian Creed, the Belgic Confesion of 1561, and the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 and hardly anyone noticed. If they did, they were silent.

Knight also defined “role” in such a way that was a “person-defining category, speaking of fixed power relations, not role relations that may change from place to place and from time to time” (11). God the Father has the role of authority and the Son and women have the role of submission. In spite of clever analogies, Giles contends Knight’s better analogies would be to apartheid where role is connected to essences. This has to do with God: “What is actually being argued is that what primarily differentiates the Father and the Son is differing authority: who rules over whom for all eternity” (11). It was a circular argument that Knight got himself into:

First, he reformulated the doctrine of the sexes on the basis of differing “roles,” by which he means differing authority. Then he reformulated and reworded the doctrine of the Trinity exactly in the same way. Finally, he appealed to his novel doctrine of the Trinity to substantiate his teaching on the sexes. Reading our earthly agenda into the life of God is called “theological projection” (12).

There was a healthy debate after Knight but it all but ended with the Danvers Statement, which affirmed Knight’s view, and then the Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood statements where “role” was now fixed, where complementarian replaced hierarchical and traditional, and where the Trinity argument was much less in play than it would come to be.

Enter Wayne Grudem.

With the publication of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine in 1994, the Trinity argument for the first time became integral to the complementarian position. He gives a full chapter to the doctrine of the Trinity in which he argues in detail for the eternal subordination of the Son. He makes this the ultimate basis for the permanent subordination of women. And he gives a full chapter to the relationship of the sexes, which is basically an exposition of his case for “male headship.” In this chapter, he argues that the hierarchical ordering of the sexes on earth is predicated on the hierarchical ordering of the divine three persons in eternity. He is emphatic that what he is teaching on these matters is what the Bible teaches and what the church has always believed (14).

In these pages he breaks with historic orthodoxy. For him, what primarily distinguishes and differentiates the three divine persons, especially the Father and the Son, is differing authority. He says, the Father uniquely has “the role of commanding, directing, and sending,” and the Son has the role of “obeying, going as the Father sends, and revealing God to us.” Later, when speaking of how the Trinity prescribes the male-female relationships, he says, “The Father has greater authority. He has a leadership role among all the members of the Trinity that the Son and the Spirit do not have.”… The outcome of this teaching is that we end up with a doctrine of the Trinity where the divine three persons are hierarchically ordered; the Father eternally rules over the Son, and this is the basis for the hierarchical ordering of the sexes (15).

Todd Pruitt critiques Grudem intensively:

The stubborn insistence of Drs Ware and Grudem to force a parallel between the Father and the Son, to a husband and a wife is worse than troubling. And we can see from the passage cited above, it leads to the inevitable comparison of the Holy Spirit to the child of the divine husband (Father) and wife (Son). These parallels have far more in common with pagan mythology than Biblical Theology…. This is a distortion of the Godhead and there is nothing helpful or beautiful about it (16-17).

But, Grudem’s theology continues to sell:

The impact of Grudem’s Systematic Theology on evangelical and Reformed Christians—particularly young, mostly male, theological students—cannot be overestimated. It is the most widely used theology text in evangelical and Reformed seminaries and Bible Colleges around the world. More than 500,000 copies have been sold and the book has been translated into eight languages and eight other translations are in progress. He is emphatic that the eternal subordination of the Son in authority stands right at the heart of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. More than anyone else he has led the majority of evangelical and Reformed Christians to accept as orthodoxy an Arian-like hierarchical doctrine of the Trinity, where the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father (17).

Grudem has claimed his view is historic orthodoxy; it is not and those he cites are often mis-cited (read p. 18 in Giles).

Next comes Bruce Ware, and we end today with Giles’ sketch of Ware.

In [Ware’s highly recommended book] Father, Son and Holy Spirit, time and time again Dr Ware speaks of the “supremacy” of the Father and often of his “priority” and “pre-eminence” in the Godhead. For him, the divine persons are not “co-equal” as orthodoxy with one voice asserts. They are “hierarchically” ordered. Thus we are not surprised that he argues that the Father and the Son differ in glory. He says, the Father has “the ultimate and supreme glory”; “the ultimate supremacy and highest glory,” and “the highest honor.” For this reason, the Son must give “ultimate and highest glory to his Father.” In asserting this he contradicts Scripture, which says the Father and the Son are alike to be glorified (1 Cor 2:8; Gal 1:3-5; Eph 1:3-5; Heb 1:3; Rev 5:12-13; 7:9-12, etc), and the Nicene Creed, which says the divine three persons “together’ [are to be] “worshipped and glorified,” and the Evangelical Theological Society s doctrinal statement, which demands that it members believe that the Father, Son, and Spirit are “equal in power and glory” (20).

Thus he says, “the authority-submission structure [within the life of God] marks the very nature of the eternal Being of the one who is three.” 20

More than Grudem does, Ware gets very ontological about this subordinationism of the Son.

Giles has a brief sketch of Robert Letham. Giles thinks Letham in inconsistent — having a good Trinity theology but slipping in complementarianism in sex roles in alignment with Grudem.

Then Giles goes through the dominance of the complementarian hypothesis of the Trinity in Bruce Ware and John Starke, One God in Three Persons; then Rodrick Durst, Reordering the Trinity; then Malcolm Yarnell, God the Trinity and Michael Ovey, Your Will Be Done.

So confident was this movement that ETS for 2016 was organized to talk about the Trinity, but little did they know their Rise was to be their Fall.

Complementarianism’s Trinity: The Story Now Told

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 8.52.47 AMAbout a year ago the story broke when some Reformed theologians with impeccable credentials (names below), many of them themselves complementarians of a sort, said a big “Nein!” on the eternal subordinationism of the Son to the Father as fashioned by the likes of Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Owen Strachan, and Robert Letham. Others who embraced that theory, some of whom now pretend they didn’t believe such things but many of us know better, now pretend they did not believe ETS or now claim they’ve been eternal generationists all along.

Kevin Giles, who all along has been calling out Grudem and Ware and others, both was the first to call them out and now has written a small engaging account called The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity. He has issued statement after statement but the authorities in the complementarian movement denounced him, ignored him, and therefore silenced him. But when the Reformed lights (names again below) came to his side, defended him, and denounced the inadequate and wrong-headedness of Grudem and Ware, the jig was up and suddenly Giles was no longer the bad guy. They will still largely ignore him, but the truth is out.

It’s in this book. It’s the story of the “rise and fall” of how eternal subordination got folded into Trinitarian thinking in such a way that God was on their side. They were wrong; God wasn’t. The doctrine of the Trinity ought to have nothing to do with female subordinationism to males nor of egalitarian relations in a marriage. Scholar after scholar has said this, none more consistently than Giles.

Every pastor and teacher who gets involved in this discussion — for among many of the followers of Grudem and Ware and others it continues to percolate unchecked — needs to read this book to get the fuller story. I will touch on a bit of it today. If you hear any pastor or teacher anchor complementarian relations among males-females in the doctrine of the Trinity, you need to read this book. Better yet, buy it, give it to them, and hold them accountable for it.

Here is Giles’ opener:

I have been crying out to complementarians for nearly twenty years, “Go back, you are going the wrong way on the Trinity. What you are teaching in the light of the creeds and confessions is heresy.” For well over a decade, I could count on one hand—and have fingers to spare—the theologians who openly supported me. Most evangelicals and Reformed theologians for most of this period in fact opposed me and were very critical of my work. I often felt like the boy who cried out, “The King has no clothes on, only to be cuffed around the ears by the princes and courtiers of the King. Slowly evangelical egalitarians began agreeing with me, but complementarians with very few exceptions stood in total opposition. Suddenly and unexpectedly in June 2016 everything changed. A few brave and honest complementarian princes said, “You know the boy is right, the King is naked,” and then everyone was free to state the obvious; the hierarchical ordering of the three divine persons is a denial of the creeds and confessions of the church. I now have so many evangelical and Reformed theological friends that I cannot number them. …

The about-turn of Dr. Denny Burk, the president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), a long-time dogmatic supporter of the eternal subordination of the Son and of the argument that women’s subordination is grounded in the life of God, proves the point. On August 10th, 2016, he broke with his friends Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, saying “[I now] do not agree with all their Trinitarian views.” Rather, “as a result of what has unfolded over the last two months, I believe in eternal generation, a single divine will, inseparable operations, and the whole Nicene package.” And he added that, when putting the complementarian case, appealing to “speculative, extra-biblical Trinitarian analogies .. is unhelpful and unwarranted in Scripture.” And furthermore, “I think it is good and right to leave behind the language of subordination” in reference to Jesus Christ (1-2).

The complementarian theory of the Trinity — eternal subordination of the Son — badly reshaped Trinitarian thinking because of its commitment to hierarchical relations of husband and wife, males and females in the church and for some society too. It was riding the wave of consensus, or at least it thought it was:

Only in mid-2016 did it become clear that the sharp divide over the Trinity among evangelical Christians was not between complementarians and evangelical egalitarians but between those who insisted that the creeds and confessions of the church ruled on how the Scriptures are rightly to be interpreted on the Trinity and other major doctrines and those who believed with Bible in hand they could construe the Trinity independently as individuals (6-7).

Exactly. I myself knew there were Reformed theologians who disagreed, who also thought Grudem and Ware’s crowd were mismanaging what complementarianism itself meant. Because Giles has been the leading voice in criticism of the eternal subordinationism theory of Grudem and Ware, he has a special role in telling this story. Here are his words, words that are not boastful but sheer truth, truth about a man who has been accused over and over falsely:

I am also uniquely positioned and informed to write this book specifically on the complementarian civil war over the Trinity, because arguably my writings on the Trinity, more than the work of anyone else, precipitated this civil war. In support of this audacious claim, I note that when the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS)—with over 4,500 members, most with a PhD—was forced to concede that the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity had been judged heretical by many theologians and the issue had to be got out in the open, I was asked to give the opening address at the plenary forum on the Trinity at the annual ETS conference in San Antonio in November 2016. This was a huge honor. More than 2,500 evangelical theologians come each year to this conference; in 2016 the attendees numbered 2,641. On stage with me where Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, and Bruce Ware. Possibly five hundred theologians were present at this forum (7).

 

Trinity Sunday

Almighty and everlastiphoto-1473317765322-92a1a07fa8de_optng God,

you have given to us your servants grace,
by the confession of a true faith,
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity,

and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity:

Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship,
and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father;

who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign,
one God,
for ever and ever.

Amen.
BCP

Gender and Trinity

By Robert Rakestraw:

What is the controversy all about?

At the risk of overwhelming serious readers with yet another piece on Trinity and gender, I offer this contribution with the hope that some may gain a bit more clarity on an aspect of the dispute that continues to smolder and even burst into flames regularly. In this series, I will address and support the necessary qualitative distinction between the eternal inner life of the Trinity and the temporal inter-relationships of women and men in church and marriage.

The debate about the Trinity within evangelical Christianity, especially since the beginning of the twenty-first century, has become increasingly tied to the debate about male-female authority in churches and male-female authority within marriages. Many solid evangelical theologians and Bible scholars believe that it is a mistake to tie these three issues together. Let each topic be discussed on its own: Trinity, church, and marriage, considering where the final authority lies within each. This is wise counsel.

The reason these three issues are being woven together as never before in church history (to my knowledge) is that some complementarians (those who believe men should have the final authority in churches and marriages) have been supporting their position by likening male-female relationships to Father-Son-Spirit relationships (focusing mostly on God the Father and God the Son). They argue that just as Father and Son are “equal” so men and women are “equal,” but just as there is subordination (lesser authority given to the Son) in the Trinity, so there should be subordination (lesser authority given to women) in churches and marriage.

Because of this unusual doctrine of the Trinity, many evangelicals are becoming alarmed. They say that this is false teaching about God, perhaps even heresy, because the complementarians (formerly called hierarchicalists) argue that such subordination between Father and Son has always been and always will be, throughout eternity! They assert that the Son has always had lesser authority than the Father, not just while he lived on earth in full submission to his Father.

There is good reason to be alarmed. I realize that some may say I am oversimplifying the issues and even misrepresenting their position in certain respects. To these concerns I reply that I have not intentionally distorted any viewpoint, even though I have simplified matters and am stating the issues rather bluntly, to get directly into the current controversy.

If this new view of the Godhead held by some complementarians becomes popular, it will almost certainly lead to a serious weakening of the universally-held doctrine of the Trinity. The Son and the Spirit will no longer be exalted as equal to the Father in everything, including power, glory, sovereignty, and authority. Let the three issues be considered separately: authority within the Godhead, authority within churches, and authority within marriages.

It is especially dangerous to tamper with the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in order to support a particular view of authority in churches and marriages. It is sad and alarming to learn that in a recent (2016) survey, 51% of evangelical Christians in the United States believe that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person. According to a careful reading of John 14-16 this is totally false. What then, we may ask, are Christians thinking about the Son?

God’s people who know the Bible should uphold and teach the full equality of the members of the Trinity in every sense of the word “equality,” not diminishing the eternal, intrinsic authority of Father, Son, and Spirit. As stated above, whatever Christians believe about the final authority in churches and marriages with respect to gender should be considered apart from the Trinity. To use the idea of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father to support the earthly subordination of females to males is seriously wrong.

What is the biblical doctrine of the Trinity?

After the first few centuries of the Christian church, the doctrine of the Trinity had become well thought-out and well established. The standard, orthodox teaching since then (with some variations) among all branches of Christianity has been that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have existed eternally as three distinct persons (or members) in one God (or Godhead), each equal in power, glory, authority, knowledge, and all other divine attributes recorded in the Bible.

No member of this tri-personal God—this tri-unity—had a beginning. They have always existed in perfect harmony in the one being of God. None is superior to the others in any sense and none has more authority than the others. No person of the Godhead is the supervisor or leader over the others.

When the Son of God became human, and when the Spirit came in a special way at Pentecost to empower and guide Christ’s church, they were not “following orders” given by the Father. They were “sent” by the Father, as the Bible teaches, for these special ministries in the work of salvation. The Son and the Spirit voluntarily made themselves subject to the Father in the plan of redemption. But the one perfect Trinitarian mind and will of the Godhead always planned and ordained together, as one equal authority, the sovereign mission of the only all-wise God.

There never has been nor ever will be three separate wills in the Godhead. There is only one will—the will of God. The intense struggle of Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39) had to do with his earthly mission and submission to the Father as the Word made flesh. When the earthly plan of redemption has been completed, and the Son hands over the kingdom to the Father, God Almighty—the triune Lord of all—will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15: 24-28).

The concept of the eternal subordination of the Son, which is spoken of by complementarians as his eternal functional subordination, is a serious theological error. To be eternally equal to someone in divine nature and all divine attributes, yet eternally under the authority of (subordinate to) the will of that someone, if only in function (what one does), is surely illogical. And, with regard to Jesus Christ, such a view is unbiblical.

How can the Son be fully equal to the Father in deity, wisdom, and power, yet not have the same authority as the Father? This makes the Son inferior to the Father in his eternal nature and activity, since the Son takes orders from one who is higher than him in authority. Such a relationship would have to be one of a lesser deity obeying a higher deity!

The full equality among the members of the Godhead—in both being (what one is by nature) and in authority (what one decides and does)—is extremely difficult for us as human beings to comprehend. How can a committee of three not have someone in charge?

The answer is that the Trinity is not a committee, board, or group of executives. The three are in perfect, glorious unity of mind and will. They are distinct, yet fully equal. This is definitely a mystery, but it is not contradictory. If everything about God could be fully explainable to our human minds, the god we come to believe in will not be the true God of the Bible revealed in Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14, John 14-17, and many other scriptures.

In our humanity, when three or more people are working on a project, we almost always want someone to be “in charge.” This is a very good and necessary leadership principle. However, because of this, it is practically impossible for us to think of pure equality of authority within the eternal Godhead, so we are strongly inclined to bring our ideas of human relationships into our theology of the Trinity. Yet if we do so we will go astray, even if our intentions are noble.

How is male-female authority involved in the controversy over subordination in the Trinity?

As alluded to in Part 1, there are two main groups within evangelicalism debating the issues of subordination (lesser authority) among the members of the Trinity and subordination among male-female relationships. Complementarians believe, among other things, that women should be under the authority of male leaders in their churches, and wives should be under the authority of male leaders (their husbands) in their marriages. Their main organization is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Two major scholars supporting their views are Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem.

Egalitarians believe, among other things, that women are to share leadership authority equally with men, in mutual submission, in the responsibilities of church and marriage. Their main organization is Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). Two major scholars supporting their views are Philip Barton Payne and Kevin Giles.

Both CBMW and CBE are led by serious Bible-believing evangelical Christians, and have fully orthodox statements of faith. Even though they disagree quite strongly on male-female issues, each believes they are basing their teachings on the Bible. (It is only right for me to state here that I am a member and supporter of CBE, and have been since their beginning in 1988. Before that, I had been a member of a similar organization for years.)

Following the emergence of the secular feminist movement in the 1960’s, some evangelical Christians began to rethink the traditional ideas of male-only leadership in churches and marriages, to see if these positions really were taught in the Bible. Such questioning in itself was, and is, a good thing, since current controversies often provide opportunities to examine one’s doctrines and practices to see if they are well-grounded.

When John Wesley, John Newton, and William Wilberforce challenged the prevailing practice of slavery (which was strongly supported from the Bible by many Christians), this led eventually to the abolition of slavery. Years ago, God’s people searched the Bible to see if the word of God supports such practices as putting the American flag on the church platform along with the Christian flag (should “for God and country” be the motto of Christ followers?) and the excluding of certain charismatic practices that were present in the first-century churches.

So also, many of God’s people are re-examining the issue of women’s subordination to men in churches and marriages. Some of these believers—actually many—are looking at the issues in full submission to the authority of the scriptures. They are not casting the Bible aside to follow the culture, as many others seem to be doing. Some are focusing more on women and church issues and some more on women and marriage issues, even though all know that both areas need careful thought and prayer to avoid the serious abuses of authority by men who have severely damaged many women over the years.

Conclusion        

There are different opinions on the above matters among the people of God, just as there are on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, and the second coming of Christ. Controversies often develop, however, when those on one side of an issue (or those on both sides of an issue) go beyond the Bible.

In this regard it is not wrong, for example, to think about what God’s “omnipresence” actually means in detail, or what God was “doing” before this universe was created. If we do such thinking, however, we need to be aware that we are entering into some “speculation,” which means that we are going beyond plain biblical revelation. This is not necessarily wrong, but it is good for us to acknowledge that we cannot speak with finality on these and many similar matters. God did not give us his word in the form of a systematic theology textbook. If he did, we would probably argue about that “Bible” just as much as we do now, even if it were a 20-volume set, with every conceivable question answered by God himself!

When we, as mere specks in the universe in ourselves, delve into the mysteries of the eternal Trinitarian Creator and Sustainer of all—why and how God thinks and plans and lives—we must always be aware of when we go beyond the Bible. If we do go beyond the actual words of Scripture, as we all do at times to develop and express our theology (our set of ideas about God), let us recognize when, how, and why we are doing this, and be careful not to put our doctrinal formulations—as helpful as they may be—on the level of Scripture.

In all these matters, the responsibility of each believer is to consider prayerfully the issues from the word of God as fully as our energy and ability allow, to listen respectfully to all viewpoints, and to move forward in our service for Christ, looking to him for ongoing knowledge, wisdom, and grace. If we must disagree, let us do so charitably and humbly, admitting that we still have much to learn. The overall goal of all who belong to Christ must be—with unity on the essentials, with unselfish neighbor love, and with zeal for the honor of God—to make faithful disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

Is Trinity “Useless”? Hear this Theologian Out

By Geoff Holsclaw, pastor at Life on the Vine and colleague at Northern Seminary.

Does the Trinity really matter to our regular lives?  And with this supposed “trinitarian revival” of the last 75 years, what are the options? Have things really changed? Or is it all useless?

Well, Zondervan’s Two views on the Doctrine of the Trinity brings together two examples of a “classical” understanding and two examples of a “relational” understanding of the Trinity into conversation, and we’re going to spend sometime looking at them.

Stephen R. Holmes and Paul D. Molnar offer “classical” perspectives and Thomas H. McCall and Paul S. Fiddes talk about a “relational” perspective, which seems to be a chastened, evangelical version of the “social Trinity” as espoused by Moltmann, Boff, Lacugna, and others.

Stephen Holmes opens up volume with a strong, clear, and accessible essay, even though at the end he says the Trinity is useless (I’ll let you know exactly what he means at the end).  This will be the longest post because I want to use Holmes to set up the conversation around which the other authors are engaged.

War of Words

Holmes begins by reminding us that words are slippery little things, often meaning different things in different contexts, especially different historical contexts.  After the Enlightenment the word “person” is a psychologically rich word indicating an individual center of will, reasons, creativity, and imagination.  But Holmes reminds us that this psychologically expansive understanding of “person” was not what the ancient church understood by the term when applied to the persons of the Trinity (instead, hypostasis indicated a particular or individual mode of existence within the Godhead).

Holmes brings this up put us on guard against an over hasty connect from what was a technical term of theology to our existential yearning for relationship with a personal God (and yes, Holmes affirms that God is personal, so don’t worry).

War of World (or Not)

Holmes also attempts to clear the air about the so-called split between an Eastern (relational) and Western (ontological) orientation toward the Trinity (and this is key).   The engrained idea is that the Eastern church fathers (Cappadocians) had a “good” perspective on the Trinity because they began with a plurality of persons (Father, Son, Spirit) and only then attempted to think the unity of God.  But the Western church fathers (see Augustine, the supposed father of all modern theological ills) began with the unity of God’s being and then only thought about the plurality of persons at the end.

This  “split” has been repeated for over a 100 years by “systematic” theologians, even though most historian have abandoned it (for the brave, Holmes rightfully points to Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology).  Historians have shown the significal cultural, linguistic, and theological congruencies that existed between East and West such that this split is more of modern creation than an ancient reality (I’d be happy to deepen this in the comments if asked).

Why has this “East/West split” persisted?  Usually because 20th-century systematic theologians have a “story” to tell and the historical facts don’t always fit into that story.  As in biblical interpretation so too in historical narration, beware the theologian with an agenda.

Holmes clears air in these two ways because he wants us to be able to see and hear what the classical doctrine of the Trinity was really trying to express.  But first he speaks of the origins of the doctrine.

Origins of the Trinity?

Before looking at proof texts for the Trinity, Holmes suggest that we first remember the dogged commitment to “Oneness” that we find in the Old Testament, the commitment to monotheism.  We must remember that the history of God’s relationship to Israel consisted in God’s own uniqueness and Israel’s relationship to this God alone.  Before “monotheism” is a philosophical category or an apologetic argument, we must remember that it was first supposed to be a lived loyalty between God and Israel.  So the oneness of God is not a Greek philosophical fixation, but a Hebrew commitment of the highest order.

But then comes Jesus, and the church’s immediate and spontaneous worship of him, worship that traditionally had been reserved only for God.  How can they worship Jesus without violating monotheism?  Well this is a great question (and if you want details read anything by Larry Hurtado).  The doctrine of the Trinity comes out of these existential and practical commitments of the early church (and don’t forget about the baptismal formulas).

As Holmes says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is a set of conceptual distinctions and definitions that offer a theological account of the divine life that made sense of these primitive practices of worship.  At the risk of oversimplifying, the church always knew how to speak to God.  Yet it took four centuries or so to work out how to speak about God in ways that were compatible with this” (33).

What is The Doctrine of the Trinity?

Holmes claims that the doctrine of the Trinity is a conceptual framework through which we read Scripture and other doctrine.  In a sense, it is the interpretive lens which makes everything else clear, and with out which we would not be able to properly understand Christian experience or Christian revelation.

As a conceptual framework, the doctrine of the Trinity is not itself an ontological statement (a statement about the “being” of God). As Holmes say, “We can know that God is, but not what God is” (35, emphasis added) because the doctrine of the Trinity states that God is three persons, but not how or in what way God is three.  The early church did not claim to know (and often claimed it did not know) the “what-ness” (essence/nature) of God, but that it did proclaim the “that-ness” (existence) of God.

The “classical” statement of the Trinity (often disparaged as relying on a Greek metaphysical framework) is less philosophically interested in claiming to know what God is and more concerned on how our language often fails us.  The doctrine guards us from saying too much. 

But what does it say?

For Holmes, the “classical” understanding of the Trinity comes down to the 1) simplicity of God, and  the 2) relations within God.

Why is God simple?  The basic idea is that God is not assembled of smaller part into a larger composite.  If something is assembled this implies the agent who assembles, which would therefore be greater than God.  But if there is none greater than God, God must be simple (or incomposite).  Again, this is not a claim of knowledge (that we know what God is like in God’s simplicity), but a claim about the things we know, i.e. that God is not like anything else we can know about because God is absolutely simple, not composed of parts, not beginning in time, not assignable to a general class (practically this means that God’s attributes are all interlinking and in a sense “coterminous” such that God’s wrath is not opposed to his mercy, nor justice opposed to his love, etc).  Basically, divine simplicity is just an explication of divine unity, without any more robust philosophical commitments/ontologies involved.

Why does God have “relations”? The idea as Holmes explains it is that when it comes to the Trinity, heresies stumbles over two problems concern the nature or substance of something.  For the typical ancient mindset, a nature possessed a quality either “substantially” or “accidentally”.  When thinking about the Trinity if divine nature were a “substantial” quality that the something called the “Father” had, and a substantial quality that something else called the “Son” had, then “Father and Son are different in substance, and so they are not one God” but two gods (37).  If “Father” and “Son” are accidental quality of divine nature then God is composed of parts (is not simple) and therefore is not really the God of the Old and New Testaments.  So what is to be done?

Well, basically the early church invented another ontological category (not so behold to Greek metaphysics now is it?) call “relation”.  The Father and the Son are of the same divine nature (whatever that might be), but the Father is “the Father of the Son” and the Son is “the Son of the Father” in a way this is not reversible (for it would be false to say the Son is “the Father of the Son” and the Father is “the Son of the Father”).  These relations are the only “differences” within “unity”.

But Holmes is quick to remind that this is a logical category and that just as “person” should not trigger related ideas of “personal”, so too “relation” should not make us think of “relational” because then we would be tempted to say more about the “what-ness” of divine essence than we should.

The Trinity is Useless

Much more could be said about Holmes proposal, but we should cut if off there.  Holmes ends with the claim that, properly speaking, the doctrine of the Trinity is useless, that we should not attempt to put it to use in the world of our experience or draw practical lessons from it for the world.  Why?  Because something that is put to use is being used for a more ultimate purpose, or a higher goal or later end.  But there is no end that is higher or later than God.  Because God is the last end, or end-less, the Trinity is likewise useless, because it is that end toward which all other uses are directed.

“For us to see the beauty of the divine life and to respond with awestruck worship is not something that serves another, higher, end, not something of use.  Instead, it is, simply and bluntly, what we were made for” (48).

Geoff Holsclaw is Affiliate Professor of Theology at Northern Seminary, and Director of their new Masters in Theology and Mission.  You can also follow Geoff on Twitter and Facebook.

The Battle Rumbles Along: The Trinity of Complementarians

The battle rumbles along: one side of the historic Reformed have announced that the complementarian–focused Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have a faulty theory of the Trinity, and they have come back to announce they are fully orthodox. The issue here is the eternal subordination of the Son. Which they use, though in these newest statements they are not speaking into that issue, to prop up the subordination of women to men. Their distinctive emphasis on eternal subordination of the Son is connected to their complementarianism. They’re now trying to minimize this but the facts are otherwise… see both Trueman’s fuller response at the link and the final point made by Bird below.

Now to the principals: Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and then responses from Carl Trueman and Mike Bird. All are reformed of one sort or another.

Bruce Ware:

God the Son, then, is both God and Son. As God, he is fully equal with God the Father, in that both Father and Son possess fully the identically same and eternal divine nature. As such, the equality between the Father and Son (and Spirit) could not be stronger – they are equal to each other with an equality of identity (i.e., each possesses fully the identically same divine nature). As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father’s will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish. The eternal Son, God the Son, is both fully God and fully equal to the Father, while he is fully Son and eternally in a relationship of Agent of the Father, carrying out the work and implementing the will of the Father in full submission and obedience to all that the Father has planned. God and Son, i.e., fully God (in nature) and fully Son (in person)–this is who this Second Person of the Trinity is as Hebrews, John, and the New Testament declare.
Fourth, none of this glorious Trinitarian theology is being devised for the purpose of supporting a social agenda of human relations of equality and complementarity. I do believe there is intended correspondence, indeed. But that is a far cry from saying that we are “reformulating” the doctrine of the Trinity to serve our social purposes. God forbid! Let God be God, regardless of what implications may or may not follow! And may our sole aim be to know the true God through his self-revelation in Scripture–the one and only true God, who is God only as he is Father, Son, and Spirit.

Wayne Grudem:

I returned from vacation on Monday night, June 6, only to find that an article onMortification of Spin, a website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, had accused me of presenting “a different God than that affirmed by the church through the ages and taught in Scripture.” I was surprised to read that I was “constructing a new deity,” that I was “reinventing the doctrine of God,” and that my view was “more like Islam than Christianity.”

In addition, I discovered that to hold my view of the Trinity is “to move into unorthodoxy” and “to verge on idolatry” and to advocate belief in “a different God.” The author recommended that holding my view of the Trinity should “certainly exclude” me and any who held my view “from holding office in the church of God.” Apparently those who had entrusted me to serve as a professor of Bible and theology for the last 39 years had made a dreadful mistake!… [The Berkhof, Strong, Hodge, Schaff notations fail to show he thought it was an “eternal” subordination of the Son. I read both speaking of the economical Trinity and incarnation. Why quote a summary of Calvin, not Calvin himself? What we need is the patristic Nicea era’s leading theologian speaking not only of subordination but of eternal subordination. As I read Grudem’s quotations, its seems to be found only in Frame, nor am I sure the Bromiley quotation speaks of eternal subordination.]

Carl Trueman:

[To Ware] Simply claiming the homoousion is not enough to make one a Nicene Trinitarian.  Were it so, history would make no sense.  After all, the term was adopted in 325 but it was another 56 years before Nicene Trinitarianism was finally defined.  The intervening years were largely spent battling over the nature of the relations.  One of the keys to the resolution of this problem was the concept of eternal generation.  Thus, I never denied that Professor Ware claims the homoousion, nor asserted that he is an Arian.  The point at issue is that of the nature of the relations.  In his writings, Professor Ware explicitly rejects the Nicene notion of eternal generation while asserting that of eternal functional submission.  That is in fact a very radical move to make, though not uncommon today.  Yet its popularity does not make it consistent with a Nicene position. In fact, rejection of eternal generation puts you definitively outside of Nicene Trinitarianism.  And that is what I was arguing.  And I cannot see how claiming the homoousion while altering your understanding of the relations does not leave your position vulnerable in the long term to one of the many problems which were debated and rejected between 325 and 381.

[To Grudem] To respond: I accuse no-one of rejecting the Nicene Creed of 325, as he states (at least in the version of the post available at 13:52 on Friday).  Nicene orthodoxy is actually defined at Constantinople in 381.  I simply state that those who get rid of eternal generation and speak of eternal submission are outside of the bounds set by 381 — which is the ecumenical standard of the church catholic, albeit in the West subject to the revision at Toledo.

If Nicaea 325 is the standard of Nicene Trinitarianism with which he and Bruce Ware are operating, then I understand why they think an appeal to the homoousion is sufficient.  But history and the church catholic say otherwise.  Eternal generation etc. etc. are also of critical importance, as Constantinople 381 indicates.

Mike Bird:

First, when I say “Homoianism” I refer to the view that was common in the 350s and 60s that stressed the subordination of the Son to the Father and declared that the Son is like the Father “according to the Scriptures,” that is, it emphasizes solely the economic subordination of the Son rather than utilizing ontological language and immanent relationships of equality. Read the Second Creed of Sirmium for an account of a Homoian Creed and R.P. Hanson’s The Search for the Christian God chap. 18 for more on Homoianism.

Second, the book by Bruce Ware and John Starke, One God in Three Persons sets out their understanding of this Complementarian view. Ware and Starke have both written to me privately to stress their acceptance of the term homoousion and their deliberate intent to avoid the language of “subordination,” both of which I affirm and applaud.  In fact, Ware prefers the term “eternal authority-submission relationship” over “eternal functional subordination,” though I’m not convinced it is that much of an improvement. Even so, to reiterate, they are definitely not Arians! For more, see Stephen Holmes’s review of Ware and Starke for some robust criticism and Fred Sanders’s review for a bit more sympathy.

Third, I remain concerned of two things: (a) That the notion of authority and/or hierarchy is still being applied by proponents to the Trinity which potentially makes the God-head a Tri-archy rather than a Tri-unity, and I don’t think this can be squared with a Nicene theology; and (b) The whole debate is motivated by gender issues and not solely by a careful appropriation of biblical materials and their reception among the Nicene Fathers.

Trinity Sunday

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 7.05.08 AMAlmighty and everlasting God,

you have given to us your servants grace,

by the confession of a true faith,

to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity,

and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity:

Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship,

and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory,

O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign,

one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

BCP

Why Complementarians Need to Avoid Using the Trinity Analogy

Lucy Peppiatt WTCBy Lucy Peppiatt:

Hierarchy & the Trinity

Seeing as the words aner and andros are fungible, I like the fact that the RSV editors have kept their options open. It’s like a little glimmer of hope. It’s interesting that they shied away from the idea that man in general is the head of woman, but were happy with the claim that Christ is the head of all men. If they have decided that aner should be translated as ‘husband’, they could equally have made the decision that andros that occurs just before that could also be ‘husband’ as well, except they didn’t. One has to wonder why when it creates more problems than it solves.

In Eph 5 Paul uses both terms for ‘man’ interchangeably to mean ‘husband’, as he does in 1 Cor 7, and as the only other instance that we have of him applying this term ‘head’ to men and Christ is in the context of marriage, it would make better sense in this context just to stick with that? So if we do that, where does that lead us?

If you’ve read my previous post on Eph 5, you’ll know that I think that Paul is using the concept of head and body to describe the function of a cornerstone in relation both to Christ and the church and husband and wife. The main connotations I took from that are the ideas of foundation, building up to maturity, the summing up of all things in harmony and unity, and the indissoluble union of head and body. In addition to that he refers to notions of self-sacrifice, renunciation, and leaving and cleaving on behalf of the husband. These are themes drawn from the analogy of the husband to Christ.

This pattern is transferable to the God/Christ relation relatively easily in that it is possible to see God in some sense as the foundation of Christ in that the Son emanates from the Father, is begotten of the Father, is exalted in and by the Father, but all the while being of one substance with the Father in an indissoluble union.

I think this basically works. However, we still have the problem of the fact that Paul has left wives as the kephale of no-one! By situating the husband as the ‘head’ and the wife as the ‘body’ has he done wives an eternal disservice, consigning all of us to a dependent and what seems like an intuitively ‘lesser’ position? You could see it like that, but I don’t think you have to, and I believe there is freedom not to, but first it helps to do some trinitarian theology before we answer the husband/wife question.

The question revolves around connotations of ‘lordship’ and ‘preeminence’ associated with the word kephale, which I said I would deal with, so now I will.

Everyone who studies kephale knows that it can mean ‘ruler’, ‘chief’ ‘one who is foremost’ and things like that. But does it here? However much theologians go on and on and on about the fact that it can’t possibly mean that in relation to God and Christ because they are one – Christ is God – people stubbornly continue to insist on the idea that Paul must have had some kind of hierarchical structure in mind. This idea is normally supported by the economic obedience of Jesus to the Father as the incarnate Son, which is fair enough, except that the Bible’s claim that the Son was obedient sit alongside claims that the Father and the Son are ‘one’, and that Son does what he does of his own accord. It is far from a simple picture. The hierarchical reading of kephale is further bolstered by the misconception that men and women fit neatly into a hierarchical structure too, where men are preeminent and women are derivative, and before we know it, ‘head’ means I’m the boss of you and you’re the boss of no one …

The problem is that there are just too many problems with positing an eternal hierarchy within the Godhead. The submission of Jesus as the incarnate Son is not there to tell us something about hierarchy and governance, but to tell us something about the full humanity of Christ, and his willingness to live a fully human life in order to save us. This was his task while on earth, implementing the divine will on earth as it is in heaven, in his humanity, in order to bring about the salvation of the human race. There are rich and complex issues around the two wills of Christ which I blogged on earlier, so do look them up, but in brief, the fact that Jesus had a human will as well as a divine will, is not an indication that he was a subordinate being to the Father.

Any hint of subordination in the Godhead, or the idea that the Son was/is ‘lesser’ than the Father was comprehensively challenged in the 4th Century when Arianism (the name of this heresy) was eventually ruled out, as affirmed in the Creeds. I understand though how the idea that the Son is somehow below the Father has a certain comfortableness about it, even if it’s wrong. Colin Gunton rightly notes that heresies are easier for us to believe because they resolve the tensions that we find it difficult to live with.

I wonder whether Arianism also legitimates the positing of an eternal creation hierarchy or inequality between men and women, which is certainly not depicted in Genesis. The two ideas seem to be two sides of the same coin. One endorses the other, as we well know, but both are fundamentally un-Christian ways of thinking. This is why many recent scholars have moved to the idea of kephale as ‘source’, although that also may not be quite precise enough.

Anyway, my point is, that for the sake of staying with orthodoxy when it comes to God, let’s rule out kephale as ‘ruler’ because God does not ‘rule over’ Christ and let’s not adopt lordship as a concept within the Trinity, because the Father is not the Lord of the Son. This means really that preeminence is also out, but let’s take the idea of a ‘first principle’ because I think there are still traces of that in kephale, and it kind of helps. Chrysostom was also ditched hierarchy and stuck with ‘first principle’ so there might be something in this.

In trinitarian theology, there is a way of speaking of the Father that sounds as if he is ‘first’. He is the arche; he is ‘unbegotten’. In Paul’s language, you could say he doesn’t have a ‘head’. Similarly, there is a way of speaking of the Son that sounds as if he is second. He is the Son; he is ‘begotten’. And here we have Paul claiming that he has a ‘head’. To confuse you though, this language of unbegotten and begotten applied to Father and Son was never meant to imply in any way that the Father is logically, chronologically, or ontologically ‘first’. He can’t be. The Son is not lesser, but equal to the Father, as is the Spirit, and all three coexist eternally. The Son is not of a different essence, but of the same substance (as with the Spirit). He and the Father are one. There is no logical, chronological, or ontological separation of the three as they are always one. There is only distinction of the persons in the Godhead between the Father, Son, and Spirit. There’s the tension … but don’t be tempted to resolve it.

In the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, Adam is the human creature in whom man and woman exist and from whom the husband and the wife are created. This occurs at the point when the woman is differentiated from the man, by emanating from him, taken from his side. She is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, and the writer of Genesis says that it is for this reason, that the husband must leave his family and be united to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. The second creation story contains the ‘marriage story’ in which the woman emanates from the man in an act of differentiation, and then the man willingly rejoins her in an act of indissoluble union, which has become how Christians describe marriage. Husband and wife become ‘one flesh’.

In Ephesians, Paul uses this picture of marriage to describe the mystery of Christ’s relation to the church, employing the concept of ‘kephale’ as an illustration. In 1 Corinthians 11, he employs the same concept to describe the mystery of the nature of the Godhead in relation to God and Christ. Husbands and wives, then, occupy a unique position in creation symbolizing this dynamic of emanation and union, or even re-union?

In all these three pairings, God/Christ, Christ/husband, husband/wife, first principle is both there and not there. It is there in the stories of origin, but never with logical, chronological, or ontological connotations of precedence or preeminence or superiority. Furthermore, in the purposes and economy of God, it is finally eclipsed by the mystery of union. In other words, kephale is a concept that potentially contains the idea of a first principle from which arises harmony, unity, and union. Crucially, however, Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians is that there is only one ultimate kephale. God will be all in all. He is the kephale above all things, and all will be summed up and built up in the perfecting of the created order in him.

Thus, cornerstone is the most fitting metaphor for this.

I know this doesn’t yet deal with the fundamentally unequal positions spelled out in Eph 5 and 1 Cor 11:3. The wife is still the kephale of no one. I’ll address that next.

Trinity Sunday

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 6.10.46 AMAlmighty and everlasting God,

You have given to us your servants grace,

By the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity,

And in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity:

Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship,

And bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father;

Who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign,

One God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

BCP

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